House passes measure to clarify stance on medical marijuana
A measure aimed at clarifying the state's medical-marijuana law to protect legitimate patients from arrest passed the state House of Representatives...
Seattle Times health reporter
A measure aimed at clarifying the state's medical-marijuana law to protect legitimate patients from arrest passed the state House of Representatives this week, but advocates can't agree whether that's actually good news for patients.
The bill has been changed significantly since its introduction. While the chief sponsor remains confident it will still end up helping a lot of patients, some of the most vocal advocates are calling the measure a "zero" that might even do more harm than good.
And the issue has created a rift among the people who have been fighting together for years for medical-marijuana rights.
"I've been crying for weeks on this," said Ric Smith, a Shoreline marijuana patient. "There are a whole bunch of hard feelings over this thing."
The measure, Senate Bill 6032, was originally meant to address the vagueness that has plagued the state law since it was overwhelmingly passed by popular initiative in 1998. Over the years, some patients and "caregivers" who grow marijuana for them have been arrested and had their pot confiscated. As originally written, the bill would have directed police not to arrest or seize marijuana from legitimate patients. It left the 60-day supply mentioned in the law to be determined by medical need. It also would have allowed patients or suppliers to grow the plants collectively, so long as only qualifying patients got the pot.
The chief sponsor, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Wells, D-Seattle, called the original "fabulous." But it was drastically amended because law enforcement voiced concerns, she said.
Because it has never been clear how many pounds, plants or joints make up a 60-day supply, language was added directing the Department of Health — instead of doctors — to define a 60-day supply.
Gone, in later versions, were protections from arrest, along with the provision for collective grows. In the end, the support of many formerly enthusiastic medical-marijuana patients and their advocates was gone, too.
Smith, for one, said the bill's failure to allow collective growing penalizes patients and caregivers who need to group together to afford the expenses involved in growing marijuana. Smith suffers from a host of medical problems, including AIDS, a stroke, colon cancer and kidney failure. He shares a "grow" but now worries about his caregiver being arrested.
Douglas Hiatt, a lawyer who represents medical-marijuana patients, summed up the sentiment: "This is the biggest zero bill I've ever seen," he said. "There is no meaningful protection in the bill — none. That's why patients don't support it."
But some medical-marijuana patients do support the bill. They note that the measure still spells out that police aren't required to confiscate marijuana if a patient is in compliance with the law. It also says doctors need only determine that a patient "may benefit" from marijuana to use it medically. Although the Washington State Medical Quality Assurance Commission has already added several health conditions to the original law's list of ailments that may be treated with marijuana, the bill formally adds those to the language of the law. They include Crohn's disease, hepatitis C, and "diseases, including anorexia, which result in nausea, vomiting, wasting, appetitite loss, cramping, seizures, muscle spasms, or spasticity," when symptoms or pain cannot be relieved by standard treatments or medications.
"I believe 6032 will help protect patients and reduce the waste of police resources," Martin Martinez of Seattle's LifeVine Clinic wrote to Kohl-Welles. "Don't be fooled by the vocal minority."
Tom McBride, executive director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said the measure as now written clarifies, but does not expand or restrict, current law.
"It does a better job of telling medicinal users how to comply with the law without opening the law to recreational users," he said.
The current version also would direct the Department of Health to evaluate the feasibility of having the government supply marijuana directly to qualified patients.
Andy Ko, director of the Drug Policy Reform Project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, called the bill a first step.
"There needed to be law-enforcement support [to pass the bill]," he said. "For the first time, there was overwhelming support for fixing the medical marijuana bill and protecting patients."
Kohl-Welles acknowledged she has heard an earful from "some very vocal critics," but has been pleased about the bill's strong bipartisan support.
"They wanted a perfect bill, but we couldn't get that through," she said. "It's very rare you get a bill through the Legislature and signed into law that hasn't been amended."
The measure now goes back to the Senate, which has already passed a slightly different version. Kohl-Welles said that means there will be several opportunities to continue to improve the bill.
"I think it's important to keep working on it," she said.
Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249
Information in this article, originally published April 6, 2007, was changed May 10, 2007. Clarification: A previous version of this story stated that a bill in the Legislature to clarify Washington state's medical marijuana law would add to the law several new health conditions for which marijuana could legally be used. While it's technically true that those conditions would be formally added to the language of the law, existing law directs the Washington State Medical Quality Assurance Commission to decide which qualifying conditions to allow. That board has already added the same conditions the bill would formally codify, including Crohn's disease, hepatitis C, and "diseases, including anorexia, which result in nausea, vomiting, wasting, appetite loss, cramping, seizures, muscle spasms, or spasticity." In all cases, symptoms must be unrelieved by standard treatments or medications.
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